Jauma: Wizardry In Oz
The pinnacle of Australian natural wine — in tiny quantities
As natural wine leaves behind the humble, affordable pricing of its early days and begins to occupy the rarefied space of "fine wines" and fought-over allocations, the stakes also get higher. With completely natural wine, the risk of flaws is part of the excitement. When you're paying more than $30 for a bottle, however, it can be a liability. Australian wine is not cheap even in Australia, due to regulations and taxes there. American wine has a hard time competing dollar for dollar with European wines, and Australian wines are typically even more pricey. It does raise the bar quite a bit, inviting extra scrutiny.
That's all to qualify how much I love the wines from James Erskine and Fiona Wood of Jauma. They are worth every penny to me, marvelously transportive and able to deliver something that, though subtle and elegant, is distinct from anything you would find from Europe or the Americas. When I'm drinking them, I'm in an emotional place first. Then I back up and get analytical, just to justify why I'm so taken by them. If you're a fan of Hiyu, Pinard et Fils, Christian Venier, these are for you.
The Jauma wines have come to represent, for me, the height of what is possible from Australian natural wines. We don't have a lot to offer, so if you are even vaguely curious about these, act fast. There is a smattering of a few different bottlings available, all of which demonstrate the exciting work being done by James and Fiona.
The Jauma project is focused on single plots, farmed way beyond organic methods, and absolutely nothing added in the cellar, including sulfur. But James is not a late-to-the-party winemaker joining a trend. He comes to his methods after graduating top of his class from the Court of Master Sommeliers and studying winemaking at UC Davis. Along with another decorated sommelier, Anton van Klopper, who started Lucy Margaux around the same time, James was one of the very first in Australia to reject his more conventional training in favor of a passionate, uncompromising natural approach.
Jauma was inspired chiefly by James' revelation that Grenache and Shiraz, historic mainstays of Australia, did not have to be expressed in the jammy, concentrated way that had come to be nearly synonymous with Australian wine. His point of reference became Priorat, in Catalan Spain, where Garnacha was used to craft bright, energetic reds with depth and finesse. James was equally taken with the region's rugged independent streak. In McLaren Vale and Clarendon, he found a lot of climatic similarities to Priorat, and started Jauma in 2009.
Fiona Wood is now his partner in Jauma, and while James handles the winemaking, she manages all the vineyards, working with vines some of which were planted in the 1940s. They employ techniques that are at the outer frays of natural farming, but outlined by Dr. Elaine Ingham from Permaculture USA/Soil Food Web Institute. This includes spraying the leaves of the vines with compost teas containing potent levels of fungi, as opposed to bacteria. The goal is not just to eradicate pests and diseases from the vineyards but to encourage robust, healthy, microbial life to thrive, building a deeper and more resilient system, not unlike taking probiotics for your gut health. Just with fungus. They also have around 26 different cover crops as well as cherry trees, all increasing the biodiversity in ways that few vineyard managers employ, even those working organically. They also are committed to social justice issues and have contracted with the same vineyard team for the past six years and work to ensure they all are compensated fairly.
As far as the wines go, I find them to indeed validate the hardcore, natural techniques being used. They also fulfill the stated promise of zero sulfur wines. The energy in the wines is immediate and direct, untamed by sulfur, yet all the same harmonious. In wine the details make all the difference. At first I often thought these wines were not so distinct from all the glou-glou and early-picked light reds that are out there. Yet each time I've tasted the Jauma wines, they stick with me more and more. They have that special something that makes them not only worth seeking out — they make me want to buy a plane to Australia and see what James and Fiona are doing firsthand. Before that happens, a bottle of their wine is as vivid a connection you could hope to have to a place 10,000 miles away.